Quartetto Energie Nove’s Splendid Prokofiev

Prokofiev quartets

PROKOFIEV: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 (arr. Samsonov) / Quartetto Energie Nove / Dynamic CDS726

Having been blown away by Quartetto Energie Nove’s performances of the Janáček String Quartets (see my review here), I decided to review this earlier disc of Prokofiev quartets. Now, one must take into account the fact that Prokofiev’s music, particularly his later music, tends to be not only more astringent in harmony than Janáček but also more cerebral and emotionally detached, rare exceptions being his Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3, Peter and the Wolf, Lt. Kije Suite, Romeo and Juliet and the Seventh Symphony. In much of the music of his maturity, Prokofiev wrote what I feel are intellectually challenging (and sometimes playful) scores, where the challenge to the performer(s) is to make it sound interesting.

Andrew Litton achieved this in his recent release of the Prokofiev Symphonies Nos. 4 (revised 1947 version) and 7, and Quartetto Energie Nove achieves it in this recording of the two string quartets and an arrangement for quartet of Visions Fugitives. Their approach to the music is, stylistically, somewhat different from their performances of Janáček. Here, they approach the music in a taut, linear fashion, eschewing any lingering moments of rubato. Indeed, the tempos, once begun, are so strict that one could set a metronome to them and let them go. Yet this is not a negative thing, for within that strict tempo the quartet manages to expand on Prokofiev’s basic instructions by imparting a great deal of electricity to each note and phrase. It would be easy to say that many young string quartets do the same thing, but I would counter that this is not necessarily the case, also that in many cases other quartets fail to grasp the differences between romantic quartets and modern ones. By approaching Prokofiev this way, Quartetto Energie Nove feels that these works fall somewhere between, say, Janáček and Kodály on one hand and post-1940 string quartets on the other. They want us to establish both an intellectual and emotional connection with this music, and to that end they do some amazing work.

To a certain extent one can hear the difference most clearly in the arrangement of Visions Fugitives, a series of short piano pieces originally composed in 1915-17. Here the quartet sounds more genial and playful, as is befitting these works. In some of the faster, edgier pieces in this group, i.e. No. XV Inquieto, they play with the same kind of drive and emotional ferocity heard in the later quartets, but by and large they approach the music more lyrically (listen particularly to No. XVII, Poetico). It is a fine line they walk between pressing hard and easing up, and they have very fine instincts in their choices.

If I seem to have placed more attention on the lesser work here it is not because I was less impressed with the larger quartets, but because it provides a contrast in style and shows how well they judge their effects. On the contrary, their taut, lean yet highly charged readings of the two big quartets are outstanding—listen, for instance, to the way they balance the lyrical and explosive elements in the second movements of both quartets, bringing out Prokofiev’s sometimes-obscured dark side. Many other young chamber groups can play the larger works in a similar style, albeit not always with this kind of emotional commitment, whereas almost none can pull off what they do in the miniatures. This is a thoughtful as well as an exciting disc, highly recommended.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Litton’s Prokofiev Structured Yet Exciting

Prokofiev front cover

PROKOFIEV: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7 / Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Litton, conductor / Bis 2134 (SACD)

This is the fifth installment in Andrew Litton’s survey of the complete orchestral works of Prokofiev. The first four included the Romeo and Juliet suites (Bis 1301), Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3 (1820), Symphony No. 6 and the suites from Lt. Kije and Love for Three Oranges (1994) and Symphony No. 5 with the Scythian Suite (2124), none of which I have heard.

I chose to review this disc because, except for the First Symphony (“Classical”), I’ve tried several times over the past half-century to get into Prokofiev’s Symphonies without much luck. There was just something about the music that I found not necessarily unlikable so much as rambling and poorly structured. No matter who was conducting them, they just didn’t seem to make any sense to me.

But Andrew Litton has been a conductor I’ve respected for a long time, so I figured what the heck, I’ll take a shot at it. And I’m glad I did, because these performances have a taut structure about them that makes the juxtaposed sections, some of which don’t seem to jell in others’ performances, make sense. A perfect example is the first movement of the Fourth (this is the revised 1947 version, not the 1929-30 original, which I assume Litton will be recording in due course). Here is a work that at times resembles the love scene from Romeo and Juliet, in other places the Scythian Suite, constantly shifting back and forth in an almost schizophrenic manner between these two moods. No other conductor I’ve ever heard playing this music does as much with it as Litton, and that’s more than a compliment; it’s an enthusiastic endorsement. Without sacrificing one whit of energy or passion, Litton pulls the threads of this work together in such a manner that the listener suddenly understands what the composer was trying to accomplish—well, at least that’s how I interpreted it. And let me tell you, folks, the Bergen Philharmonic plays as if they were possessed, the sound forward, crisp and clear which is usually the norm for Bis recordings and the sound of the various sections beautifully “manicured” in a way that resembles the New York Philharmonic or BBC Symphony of the 1930s under Toscanini. Even the very softest wind or string passages are clear as a bell; inner voices are continually heard without dominating the ensemble; and the brasses cleave through the massed sound without snarling or sounding rough—except for those occasional passages where Litton wants to bring out a bit of roughness, such as the very ending of the fourth’s first movement. If anything, he has grown as a conductor since the last time I sampled him. Small wonder that his reputation and career path have expanded to include the Colorado Symphony, which post he accepted after formally leaving the Bergen Philharmonic last year, as well as the New York City Ballet.

Litton’s instinctive sense of the organic allows one to follow Prokofiev’s mind as it flits from section to section and movement to movement; particularly in the dance-like third that, to my ears, closely resembles some passages from Romeo and Juliet. That being said, I’m not quite ready to endorse either symphony as a major work of art. Well crafted they may be, but craft is not inspiration. What Litton does with the music is, in a sense, greater than what Prokofiev did with it, much like hearing Respighi’s Pines of Rome or Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite performed by a master conductor. You may certainly disagree with my findings, and if you do these are most assuredly the performances you should get, but I have to be honest with myself and my own internal instincts, and I am probably more convinced than ever—now that I can properly hear the music well performed—that there are just too many spots in these symphonies where the music strives more for effect than an internal need to express one’s self through tones. In other words, Prokofiev was trying to impress the audience with his cleverness and acute mind but not saying anything personal, and because of that these symphonies are, to my ears, merely clever exercises.

Perhaps this is even more clearly evident in the Seventh Symphony, purposely written to conform to the Soviet demand for “people’s music” that was not too dissonant or difficult. The composer, quite ill at the time of its first run-through of the symphony, was assured that it would be a success, but Prokofiev kept asking, “Isn’t the music too simple?” He evidently suspected that he hadn’t given his best, yet in some ways this Seventh Symphony is not merely easier on the ears than the dissonant Fifth and Sixth Symphonies but, for me, more cohesive in form and also more personally expressive. Perhaps because he wasn’t trying to “dazzle with bullshit,” he simply leaned back, relaxed, and produced a surprisingly sunny, attractive, and—dare I say it?—more touching work. Even the soft, lightly scored flute and string passage around 6:15 in the first movement has more to say than many of the in-your-face dissonances of the Fourth. And without those abrasive episodes, the music has a much greater flow and continuity about it…or, at least, it does the way Litton conducts it. Listen, for instance, to the soaring melody at 8:10 in that same first movement, and you’ll hear what I mean. The strings play with a special sort of energy, imbuing the music with not just a lyric feeling but also one of ecstasy.

Indeed, even the second-movement “Allegretto” is more interesting, and has more charm, than the fourth’s corresponding “Moderato, quasi allegretto” (the movement that sounded so much like Romeo and Juliet). When the music shifts and changes it does so much more organically, and although Andrew Huth’s liner notes make a big fuss over the use of a glockenspiel near the end of the finale and the manner in which the music hangs in the air, “in the tonic key but emotionally unresolved,” lacking “the necessary Soviet optimism,” I hear it simply as an expression of calm. Don’t make such a big fuss out of nothing, folks. Remember Mr. Natural.

The slow movement of the Seventh is surely one of Prokofiev’s finest melodic creations, and Litton and the orchestra play it for all it’s worth. On this recording, an alternate version of the last movement is also given after the published one, in which Prokofiev added a 22-bar coda to the symphony’s end but either way this movement is among the composer’s most lighthearted works. The whole tone of the movement is one of lighthearted, almost galumphing wit, and here is where he uses the most contrasting sections in different tempi. The tacked-on extra ending, I felt, was not merely superfluous but didn’t fit the preceding material. It sounds a bit like Peter chasing the wolf after Juliet has gone to sleep dreaming of Romeo.

All in all, however, this is a splendid recording of two of Prokofiev’s later symphonies and well recommended to those listeners who appreciate this music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Quartetto Energie Nove Nails Janáček

Janacek Quartets front cover

JANÁČEK: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; On an Overgrown Path (arr. Burghauser) / Quartetto Energie Nove / Dynamic CDS7708

Sometimes, as a reviewer, you never know where lightning will strike. Just before listening to this recording, I sampled the new release of Bartók’s String Quartets played by the New York-based Chiara String Quartet, who apparently brand themselves as playing “from the heart.” By comparison with the Alexander String Quartet’s stupendous readings, however, they were correct, virtuosic, but not at all from the heart. From the first note of this new recording of Leoš Janáček’s string quartets, however, I was absolutely pinned to the wall. And I stayed there for the whole of this record.

The album cover makes a great to-do about these being the first recordings of the original manuscript edition of Janáček’s quartets. That may be so, but as I’ve said numerous times in various circumstances, it’s not just the message but the messenger that matters. For decades, the old (1955) mono recordings of these two quartets by the Smetana Quartet (Pristine PACM046) were considered the benchmark in this music. No longer. I was startled, upon relistening to the Smetana Quartet’s recordings, at just how stodgy and prosaic they were. And this was considered cutting edge once. Oh, well. “Energie Nove,” or New Energy, certainly does describe this phenomenal Swiss quartet, founded in Lugano in 2008. Every note crackles with energy, and this even goes for the more sedate On an Overgrown Path, here transcribed from the piano score for quartet by Jarmil Burghauser. Violinists Barbara Ciannamea and Hans Liviabella, violist Ivan Vukčevič and cellist Feliz Vogelsang play at the very edge of passion; they remind me of the late, lamented Colorado String Quartet in their commitment and sense of drama.

In addition to their passion, Quartetto Energie Nove utilizes a very bright sonority of a type that has all but disappeared from modern string quartet playing. This is the kind of sound that hearkens back to the Amar, Pro Arte and early Budapest String Quartets of the 1920s, bright and lean with an almost edgy quality tempered by their superb intonation and remarkable blend. This is a group that can play as a section or pit one voice against another at a moment’s notice. I’m sure that some listeners may find their performances a bit too intense for them. That’s their problem. I love this group because they’re intense, and the way they play has an edge to it that greatly satisfies me.

I can’t say enough good things about this release, best of all being the sonics that place the quartet in a good ambience without overdoing the reverb. This disc is a killer!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Franz Schmidt’s Surprising Music

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SCHMIDT: Variations on a Hussar’s Song; Phantasiestück für Klavier und Orchester ; Chaconne für Orchester in d / Jasminca Stančul, pianist; German State Philharmonic of the Rheinland-Pfalz; Alexander Rumpf, conductor / Capriccio C5274

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) studied piano with the great Theodore Leschetitzky, cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger, composition with Robert Fuchs and harmony and counterpoint with Anton Bruckner. He played cello in the Vienna Philharmonic and in the Vienna Court Orchestrs, but quit the latter in 1914 to could concentrate on composition and teaching piano. He was awarded a piano professorship at the Vienna Academy of Music, where he later became vice-chancellor, and also privately taught cello (among his pupils were Josef Dichler, Alfred Rosé, Theodor Berger and Marcel Rubin. In 1937 he resigned due to health problems and died two years later.

Ironically, despite his renown as a pianist and cellist, Schmidt is most widely known for his organ works as well as his oratorio, The Book With Seven Seals, yet he also wrote symphonies, the operas Notre Dame and Fredigundis (the latter of which is often cited as the greatest opera no one has ever heard of), and much chamber music—all of it rather obscure to today’s audiences. This CD focuses on his even less-well-known orchestral works, including a Fantasy for piano and orchestra.

Since this was my first exposure to Schmidt, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was quickly taken by his unusual way with music. Particularly in the Variations on a Hussar’s Song (written 1930-31), one hears a very personal means of expression: decidedly German in structure, yet using several “crushed” or extended chords in the manner of French composers (one thinks not only of Ravel but also of Kochelin). Unlike his teacher Bruckner who, as an acquaintance of mine put it, only wrote “a series of endings,” Schmidt’s score shows real development, albeit in a very personal and somewhat strange vein. In some places the shifting orchestral chords put me in mind of Scriabin a little bit…one wonders if he heard any of the Russian’s music. The bottom line is a sort of “German impressionism”; one might say the stepchild of Wagner and Debussy, but it is very attractive; note, for instance, how in the “Theme and Variations” Schmidt makes the melodic line move the harmony rather than the other way round. This is the kind of harmonic-melodic interaction once often hears from very advanced jazz musicians but almost never from classical composers of Schmidt’s generation. Alexander Rumpf has a tremendous feel for this music, conducting with both great sensitivity and a fine sense of musical line…listen to his superbly controlled legato in the “Lento” section with its constantly shifting chords (particularly within the horn section). It is so rare, in fact, to hear conducting on this high a level from the younger generation of maestros that I can only hope that we hear much more from this highly gifted musician.

The Phantasiestücke is a very early work, composed in 1899 when Schmidt was only 22 years old, and thus somewhat more conventional in structure, yet there are touches (such as at the 1:40 mark) of the kind of fluid harmonic movement that would become his hallmark. The piano writing, though brilliant, is rather conventional, verging on a tune that one can hum but never quite getting there. Pianist Stančul plays the ebullient score with good tone and style, but all in all this wasn’t my cup of tea, although in this work Schmidt surprisingly captures a sort of Spanish sound, a bit like Granados.

Happily, in the Chaconne (also from 1930-31) we end the recording on the same type of music one heard in the Hussar song variations. In tempo and feeling, this score bears a certain resemblance to Richard Strauss’ Metmorphosen for 21 Strings, except that the music is far more substantial and actually goes somewhere. Strauss’ score does not. Here, too, one gets the sense that Schmidt was essentially writing an organ piece for orchestra. At least, in my mind’s ear I kept hearing this played on the organ, with all the various stops one could use to simulate the wind and string textures. Interestingly, this piece also has a very strong Russian flavor, rather like really first-rate Rimsky-Korsakov or Rachmaninov. And once again, one really does marvel at Rumpf’s ability to shape and mold the line with both forward momentum and superb legato.

All in all, this is a recording worth exploring, even if late-period German Romantic music is not your thing. Schmidt’s superb ear for color and especially harmonic movement was so highly evolved that it is almost impossible not to like this music—and Alexander Rumpf is a big reason why it works so well.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Quinsin Nachoff in a State of “Flux”

Nachoff_Flux_COVER

FLUX / NACHOFF: Tightrope; Complimentary Opposites; Mind’s Ear I; Mind’s Ear II; Astral Echo Poem; Tilted / Quinsin Nachoff, t-sax; David Binney, a-sax; Matt Mitchell, pn/Fender Rhodes/Wurlitzer org/Moog Rogue/org; Kenny Wollesen, dm/timp/tubular bells/perc / Mythology Records MR0012

Canadian tenor saxist and composer Quinsin Nachoff describes his music as fusing together eclectic influences from both jazz and classical music, yet resists the label of “Third Stream.” Nachoff says that he likes “mixing and matching things. I try to find commonalities between them to put people in different landscapes to improvise in.” He describes Flux, his latest album, as the combination of two pairings, his tenor saxophone with David Binney’s alto and the opposites-attract meething of keybord player Matt Mitchell and percusisonist Kenny Wollensen. “The concept was to put more heady material that Matt can deal with,” Nachoff puts it, “on top of this really organic feel that Kenny does and have it work as a band sound.”

The aural result is something akin to Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” only with a jazz rhythm aligned with logical struetures. What’s interesting about Nachoff’s music is that the structures don’t sound classically-influenced, though they are, and the reason they don’t is that, even moreso than Charles Mingus or George Russell, Nachoff uses the musical syntax of jazz. Thus in the opening piece, Tightrope, one hears far more of Monk and Coleman than of any specific classical composer, yet upon careful listening the structure is there. In fact, his structures are even tighter and more logical than those of, say, Henry Threadgill, to name another jazz composer (see my profile of Threadgill here) whose work has great intricacy. The difference is that Threadgill relies on a layering of notes at random intervals determined by the performers, whereas Nachoff’s music actually develops along classical lines. I’m sure that the solo spots he leaves open are improvised, but even then the solos are intended to complement the written sections. Rhythmically, I would say that Nachoff varies his beat by juxtaposing cells of music in slightly different tempos and beat-structures, but once again, it is logically worked out in advance and not left to chance.

He also likes to use different sections with contrasting tempos, though not to the extent that Mingus did, constantly jumping back and forth between them. At around the seven-minute mark in Tightrope, for instance, he suddenly has a section (featuring David Binney on alto sax) in a very slow tempo, and it stays there for about a minute before regaining its earlier momentum. Both Nachoff and his sidemen can play outside jazz, and do so from time to time, but never consistently so in order to preserve musical order. This kind of music was first tested out, in a simpler form, by such groups as the John Kirby Sextet, later expanded upon by Miles Davis’ Nonet. I found it amusing that Nachoff called his second tune Complimentary Opposites rather than Complementary, apparently alluding to the fact that the “opposites” within this piece play nice with each other but are a bit more opposed than dovetailed. The extended tenor sax solo in double time acts as a way of spanning the broken rhythms of the piece, whereas Matt Mitchell’s piano solo—delicate and thoughtful, using single-note lines—provides greater contrast, forcing the bass and drums to calm down for a while at least, with only sporadic double-time outbursts. Coming as it does almost immediately after Nachoff’s tenor solo, it puts us in another musical world.

Mind’s Ear I begins with an asymmetric piano intro, following which we hear what sounds like early-1980s modern jazz in a lyrical vein. The interesting thing about this track is that it seems to meander a lot more than the preceding ones, but this is an aural illusion created in part by the more relaxed beat and ambiguous tempo. Indeed, towards the middle of the piece, the tempo relaxes to the point of stasis, the drums reduced to occasional taps and cymbal dings as pianist Mitchell plays an out-of-tempo solo, almost meandering with a great deal of space in the music. At 6:50 we get an honest-to-goodness Ornette Coleman lick before Nahoff takes off on an uptempo tenor excursion, finally relaxing the beat at 8:32 before the piano’s quirky rideout to a dead stop in the middle of nowhere.

Mind’s Ear II is more rock-influenced, thus I will draw the curtain on it. Rock beats and I simply do not get along and never will, but if you like them you’ll enjoy this.

Quinsin Nachoff 2Astral Echo Poem is much more my cup of tea, a strange little work very close in feel to some of Mingus’ late works but using one of those quirky march-lke beats that Carla Bley loves so much. This was good enough to get the album back on track (pun intended), and here Nachoff’s tenor solo is warmer and more ingratiating than anywhere else on the album. I really liked his playing here, and Mitchell’s playing on electric piano, though again at double time, also has a laid-back feel about it. A few more Coleman-isms are tossed into this musical stew as the two saxes play together. We wrap up things with Tilted, a really wonderful piece whose opening—busy and complex using double-time repeated runs—put me in mind a little bit of Monk’s Four in One. The difference is that Nachoff uses this strange double-time lick as a backdrop to the “main melody” (obscure thought it may be) rather than as the melody itself, and occasionally drops the lick in behind his and others’ solos. A brief but complex canon evolves around the 3:20 mark before the tempo stops and Wilson returns on Fender Rhodes. There is, alas, a touch of rock beat here as well, but fortunately it’s not quite as dominant and doesn’t last nearly as long.

I was really impressed by Flux as a whole (track 4 aside) and highly recommend it as an example of new ways to combine the classical and jazz idioms.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Schwarz & Buckley’s Rousing Couperin

Couperin from cover

FRANÇOIS COUPERIN: MUSIC FOR TWO HARPSICHORDS, VOLUME 2 / Concerts Royaux, Quatrième Concert; Les Nations, Premier Ordre: La Françoise; Pièces de Clavecin, Second Livre, Neuvième Ordre: I. Allemande à deux clavecins; Pièces de Clavecin, Troisième Livre, Quinzième Ordre: Musete de Choisi/Musete de Taverni; Les Nations, Troisième Ordre: L’Impériale / Emer Buckley, Jochewed Schwarz, harpsichordists / Toccata Classics TOCC 0258

Here we have an excellent example of true “historically-informed” performance, taking into accounts the wishes of the composer as against the plain scoring. When François Couperin published his Concerts Royaux in 1722 and Les Nations in 1726, he used what we now call “open scoring,” meaning that any instruments could play it, but stated in the preface to the latter that he preferred to play them on two harpsichords. Unfortunately, his preference had to wait until the issue of these two CDs (this is Vol. 2) on Toccata Classics to become reality except for the Pièces de Clavecins.

To quote Couperin himself: “I play them this way with my family and with my students, and it works very well, by playing the premier dessus and the bass on one harpsichord and the second dessus with the same bass in unison on the other one. It is true that this requires two copies of the score instead of one, and also two harpsichords. But I find that it is often easier to assemble these two instruments than four working musicians. Two spinets in unison will do just as well (although of slighter effect). The only thing to which attention must be paid is the length of the notes because of the ornaments which must fill them out; bowed instruments sustain the sound whereas the harpsichord cannot do so; therefore the cadences or tremblemens and other embellishments must be very long; and if this is the case the performance will appear no less agreeable, especially as the harpsichord has a brilliance and clarity scarcely found in other instruments.” So why have they never been recorded this way until now?

Probably because of that very problem that Couperin brought up, that the harpsichord cannot sustain long notes like string or wind instruments. Thus Schwarz and Buckley had to work very hard to create the illusion of sustained tones, and to that end they have used harpsichords with large frames and resounding reverb when the strings are plucked. But wait a minute! Isn’t this similar to the large Pleyel harpsichord that Wanda Landowska used to play Couperin’s Les folies Françaises, ou les Dominos, Book 3 and Les fastes de la Grande et Ancienne ménestrandise back in the 1950s? And wasn’t she excoriated for defiling his music with such sounds? Why yes, I do believe that’s all true. Yet as other harpsichordists such as Zuzana Růžičková, Anna Paradiso and Elizabeth Farr have proven, large-frame harpsichords with resounding timbres certainly did exist in the 18th century, particularly in France, so a lot of that criticism goes out the window.

For this recording, Schwarz and Buckley used double-manual harpsichords “in the eighteenth-century French tradition [emphasis mine],” with two 8-foot registers, one Early Keyboard Instruments4-foot, and a “jeu de luth.” And what exactly is a “jeu de luth”? For non-harpsichord aficionados, this means a buff stop on the instrument that partially dampens the sound, i.e., provides some dynamics control on an instrument known for supposedly not having any. Because this dampening of the plucked strings was said to resemble a lute, they called it a “jeu de luth” or “liuto.” This is achieved by having the instrument pluck one of the unison registers close to the nut. But there’s more to it that that! The New Grove Early Keyboard Instruments (W.W. Norton & Co., 1989) insists that such instruments were often equipped with GUT strings, like a violin or da gamba—again, particularly in France (Michel de Hodes made one) but also in Italy (Adriano Banchieri owned one that he called an “arpittarone”). So much for the modern-day fiction that all early music should be played on punk-sounding single-manual harpsichords that sound like rattling tin foil.

But of course, the medium would be of little importance if the content of these works was in any way superficial or uninteresting. As a comparison with this recording, I listened to Les Nations as performed by the Juilliard Baroque ensemble, one of those early-music groups that use no vibrato and thus sound tight and unpleasant. They do, however, sound lively, and this goes some way towards mitigating the revolting sound of their instruments. I then listened to the same music played by the Alarius Ensemble of Brussels, which takes a compromise position towards string technique, using straight tone much of the time but uising some vibrato on sustained notes. This was much, much better to listen to, if not ideal. Couperin’s music is both lively and rhythmically varied; he wasn’t nearly as adventurous harmonically as his contemporaries Buxtehude or J.S. Bach, nor did he indulge in the sort of “stutter-rhythm” that was a hallmark of much of Buxtehude’s music. It was very much French salon style of its day, elegant and strict in form but also enjoyable to hear when played well.

After hearing it played by winds and strings, the two-harpsichord reduction sounds a bit bare in texture at first, but the richness of the instruments on which they play it and the obvious love and enthusiasm they bring to the music compensates for much of that. Schwarz and Buckley’s tempos are much closer to those of the Juilliard Baroque than the very speedy ones of the Alarius Ensemble, but the phrasing, articulation and rhythmic bounce of the music remain. One thing I found interesting was that, in the fastest passages, they employ a bit of rubato to allow the listener to hear all the notes clearly articulated rather than in a torrent of sound. Oddly enough, this works very well because of the slower interludes that Couperin wrote into his music. By playing it this way, they manage to make the music sound all of a piece rather than as a stop-go-stop-go sort of roller coaster ride. The effect is subtle, but the attentive listener will surely appreciate the care with which they approached these scores. Indeed, if anything I find their style more pleasing and more inherently “musical” in the best sense of the word than either of the group performances I listened to (though I would surely take Alarius over Juilliard any day). Note, for instance, the wonderful syncopated swagger of the “Allemande” in the first “ordre” of Les Nations, an effect that neither chamber group either achieved or strove for.

This meticulous care for detail, combined with their obvious love of the music, continues throughout the set. I was utterly charmed by their approach while at the same time aware of the infinitesimal little details they added to the score to make it “come alive”: as Toscanini used to say, “When the notes leap off the page and into your brain.” These are no archaic, academic exercises for them, but living music with a living message. And yes, once in a while, as at the 40-second mark of the first ordre’s second “Courante,” they add just a touch, just a dab of Buxtehude’s irregular rhythm to make the listener take notice. What consummate musicianship! I can only imagine how many hours it took them to work out these details, and then how many more it must have taken to phrase it in such a way that it sounded natural and flowing. And the richness of these two 8-foot harpsichords is caught perfectly by th microphones, with just a bit of air around them to alleviate the immediacy of sound.

Moreover, this same approach and enthusiasm are found in every track of this amazing album. By their imaginative use of rhythm and color (using the damper), Schwarz and Buckley make every note and phrase here a treat for the ear. One marvelous example is the “Muséte de Choisi/Muséte de Taverni” from the Pièces de Clavecin, Troisième Livre, Quinzième Ordre which, by their superb use of pedaling, they make sound completely sustained in tone from first note to last. And check out their imaginative use of the damper pedal in the “Sarabande – Tendrement” of Troisième Ordre of Les Nations. It is difficult, then, for me to be completely objective about this recording because I responded so strongly to it emotionally, but I think you will, too. If you enjoy Couperin’s music and particultly the pieces on this disc, I strongly recommend your acquiring it. You won’t be disappointed!!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Marian Anderson’s “Snoopycat” Lives Forever

Snoopycat

The late, great contralto Marian Anderson became as much a symbol of the civil rights movement as anyone of her generation–Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Big Bill Broonzy—but she was also one of the great contraltos of all time. The pity of Anderson’s career was that she was denied the chance to hone her interpretive skills on the opera stage, so she stuck to art songs, folk songs, Christmas carols and spirituals, the latter of which she sang without much feeling because she had sung mostly in Catholic churches as a youth and, by her own admission, felt very little connection to them. By the time she finally made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1955, as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, the great voice had worn down. It had a “hole” in the middle and wobbled under pressure. Yet she continued to sing recitals and make records into the early stereo era, retiring in 1965.

One of her most charming and rarest records was made for Moses Asch of Folkways in 1963. As someone who loved both cats and children, she jumped at the chance to tell some stories about her black cat Snoopy, and pianist-songwriter Frida Sarsen-Bucky wrote some songs for her to sing in between her stories. Keeping the voice at a relatively low volume, Anderson could thus still control her instrument beautifully, although in one or two songs her deep, dark chocolate voice sounds so much like a baritone that I’m sure a few kids were startled to hear it. But Anderson’s personal warmth and communication skills were never better served; in fact, I would say that, although it is obviously a record for children, she doesn’t talk down to them or make her stories too much of the Teletubby style. She holds your interest as she charms you.

The best part about this recording, as of all of Moe Asch’s records, is that it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution shortly before Asch’s death with the stipulation that all of his recordings be kept in print regardless of low sales volume. Not everything he issued was of great interest, but we do get some incredibly rare Art Tatum in his series of discs as well as some tantalizing Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) performances. But of course the crown jewel of the Asch series was Woody Guthrie. The legendary folk singer recorded virtually his entire repertoire for Asch and then some, and as per his stipulation all of it is available, for free, in perpetuity.

Which brings us back to this particular Anderson disc. The LP copy that was transferred to digital waves had a number of ticks and, once on each side, a passage where loud pops intrude on her narration. This is easily remedied with a free audio editor like Audacity, and you can stream or download the entire album—divided into only two tracks (side 1 and side 2)—for free on Spotify.

It’s not often that I recommend a recording like this one, but the charm and humor of Anderson’s narration, combined with her singing, produce an unforgettble effect. Do yourself a favor, click on the link above and take a listen. It can’t hurt you any, and you just might enjoy it as much as I did!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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